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Adams dollar making debut here

Quincy events May 22 will introduce coin

Adams dollar
GREG DERR/The Patriot Ledger


The Patriot Ledger

As a frugal Yankee, John Adams didn’t consider the deal he struck in 1782 an entirely happy one.

Seven years into the American colonies’ battle for independence from Great Britain, the future president and then-ambassador to the Netherlands had secured a crucial first loan from the Dutch.

But Adams’ diplomatic success came at a stiff price - 5 percent interest, at a time when other nations got rates of less than 4 percent and the fledgling nation hardly had a treasury to pay back the millions they had borrowed.

For a man who shunned debt of any kind, “he must have done the deal holding his nose,” said New York finance writer and Adams biographer James Grant. “He knew it was a necessary evil.”

Grant and Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough say Adams would likely think much better of the good, solid $1 coin that the U.S. Mint and Adams National Historical Park are preparing to release in Quincy on May 22.

The Adams dollar will get its public debut that day with a ceremony outside City Hall and exchanges of the coin for paper dollars at local banks and retail businesses.

The second in the Mint’s new series of presidential coins, after George Washington’s, the new coin marks the first time Adams’ image has ever been on regular metal or paper currency.

“It’s high time,” said McCullough, whose 2001 biography almost single-handedly revived Adams’ standing with the American public. “He isn’t even on a postage stamp.”

Dollars like the new coin were in short supply in Adams’ day, and McCullough and Grant say his conflicted feelings about the Dutch loans sum up his cautious attitude toward money.

While most of his countrymen were all too happy to buy on easy credit, before and after the Revolutionary War, Adams preferred to invest in land, adding acreage to his Braintree farm whenever he could. His wife, Abigail Adams, was the one who developed a taste for compound-interest bank earnings.

Not that they had much opportunity to fatten their accounts. With four children and the solid, though limited, income from John’s careers in law and government, “they always worried about money,” McCullough said. “They never had much.”

Since he’s a famous Founding Father, “most Americans think of him as a rich, Boston blueblood,” McCullough added. “He was none of those things.”

As well-educated and opinionated as Adams was about so many subjects, McCullough and Grant say he said or wrote little about private or national finance. It seems to be one of the few issues that didn’t interest him much.

He would have had much to write about, had he chosen. America’s currency and money system changed dramatically during his lifetime.

Before the Revolutionary War, a motley mix of British, Spanish and other European coins were in circulation. Massachusetts and the other colonies issued their own paper money until 1764, when the British government banned the practice.

Some historians say that action contributed to the tensions that led to the Revolutionary War.

“Very orthodox”

During George Washington’s presidential terms from 1789 to 1797, when Adams was vice president, the government took on the states’ debts and created a national bank system and a gold and silver-based treasury.

While the U.S. continued to let Spanish coins circulate, the newly established Mint issued coinage that featured a bust of “Lady Liberty” on every denomination from the penny to a $10 gold piece.

Adams welcomed the Federalist fiscal policies. During the war he had watched in dismay as the Continental Congress printed mountains of paper money so valueless that it inspired the long-used phrase “not worth a Continental.”

“He was a very orthodox believer in gold-based currency,” Grant said. “He despised unsecured paper money.”

Partly for that reason, Grant only half-jokingly dubs Adams “America’s first and most successful junk-bond salesman” for negotiating the first Dutch loans in 1782 and a second round in 1784, when the United States had an international credit rating of near zero.

For a time before he was president, McCullough says, Adams told friends that “if they put on my gravestone that I got the Dutch loans, that will be enough.”

“Then he kept the U.S. out of a war with France, so he revised that comment,” McCullough said.

Lane Lambert may be reached at llambert@ledger.com.